Kerala nun rape case: Rebellion within Church is new, but women in convents have long suffered abuse
Nuns often find themselves in suffocating and tough situations within convents. Many have spoken up about the low salaries they are paid, and about how they cannot complain about the sexual harassment they have faced at the hands of seniors in the church, for fear of ostracism
To understand the suffocating and tough situation in which the nuns find themselves, it is necessary to understand what it means to become a nun who dedicates herself to the service of God, takes a vow of chastity and surrenders herself to a life within the four walls of the convent.
Left without money and deprived of each other’s support, the protesting nuns may have to give up the fight, which is perhaps what their superiors are hoping they will do.
In the case involving Bishop Franco Mulakkal, the church authorities obviously do not quite know how to deal with the unexpected rebellion from within the ranks.
The 45-year-old nun who has accused Bishop Franco Mulakkal of raping her 13 times over a period of two years continues to live in her convent in Kurvilangad, Kerala. It was in this very convent that Mulakkal is alleged to have confined her to a guest room and forced himself on her. And it is here she continues to stay, reliving the trauma and agony of what happened to her.
She dare not leave for fear of repercussions from the powerful Church, which still has its hold on her. She also worries about the death threats she, her family and supporters have received ever since she filed her police complaint. She stays within the walls of the convent, supported by four brave nuns who are witnesses and have stood unwaveringly by her.
And now, in a shocking move, those four nuns have been asked by their superior to leave Kurvilangad and move to the various convents across the country to which they have been transferred. In an agonised letter which she wrote to the Kerala chief minister a couple of days ago, the survivor pleaded with him to intervene. “Their aim is to single me out to harass and torture me,” she wrote, “My life would be in danger if such a situation takes place.” She also feared for the safety of the women who supported her. Ever since her alleged tormentor was arrested and released on bail, the nuns have been living in fear of their lives, as they and their families have been threatened several times. Their worry is compounded by the fact that in October last year, Father Kuriakose Kattuthara, the priest who was a witness in this case, was found dead under mysterious circumstances in his room on the Catholic church premises in Dasuya. When his body was brought to Kerala, the grief-stricken nuns were not even allowed to stand in the church beside him and mourn.
This is not the first letter the survivor nun has written. She had previously written to several Christian authorities, including the Head of the Missionaries of Jesus, and even to the Pope. However, bizarrely, no one seems to have come to her support. On the other hand she has been called names and shamed in public speeches. The accused Bishop, however, was given a hero’s welcome when he returned to his Jalandhar diocese after being released on bail.
To understand the suffocating and tough situation in which the nuns find themselves, it is necessary to take a step back and try to understand what it means to become a nun who dedicates herself to the service of God, takes a vow of chastity and surrenders herself to a life within the four walls of the convent.
In many of the large Catholic families across the country, it was customary to dedicate one or two sons and daughters to the service of God. This usually happened when they were in their late teens and they spent the rest of their lives conforming to the rigid rules of the religious order. It was generally assumed that they were well cared for and spent content lives within the convents, dedicating themselves to uplifting tasks like caring for the poor and needy, and working in the missionary-run schools and hospitals. In the 60s and early 70s, Kerala, with its large Catholic population, had a number of convents, which were all full and buzzing with activity.
The myth built around convents being safe havens unraveled a little when a major scandal involving the “export” of nuns from Kerala to the depleted convents of Europe was unearthed in the late 60s. Already in the West families had shrunk and the religious calling was not as strong as it had been before, so there were not enough nuns to keep the convents going. The women who were sent there were therefore forced to do menial tasks to help maintain the large convents. Some of them escaped and returned home. Others stayed on and rose to big positions in the convents of Europe.
Today, Kerala too faces a shortage of nuns, and the reasons are the same: Small families and weaker religious calling. Added to this, a couple of scandals have rocked the churches, making it a less attractive proposition to become a nun. In 1993, the body of a 19-year-old nun named Sister Abhaya was found floating in a well inside the convent in which she lived. It took several years for the investigators to zero in on the two priests and a nun who were suspected of murdering her because she found them in a compromising position. They were arrested and let out on bail a year later. Twenty five years down the line, the matter still lies in court, while one of the accused priests has been acquitted.
In 2003, Sister Jesme, who had lived for 30 years as a nun, came out of the convent and gave a scathing indictment of life inside. In her book Amen she wrote about the sexual predators — both men and women — within the religious order. But she was not the first to speak about this. Others who had come out of the convents had spoken in more hushed tones about the dilemma they faced when the very superiors and mentors they had vowed to obey implicitly, sexually assaulted them. Or misused their confessions, which were supposed to be confidential, to blackmail them. Even if they complained, they said they often got no redressal. Or were made to feel guilty for having strayed from the straight and narrow path.
And then there was the problem of money. When girls became “Brides of Christ”, they brought some money with them. This was supposed to be kept in deposits for their welfare and returned if they left. The last part never occurred, according to the ones who left. In fact, whatever small salary they earned working in schools and hospitals was taken away from them, and they were only given minimal living expenses. Priests, on the other hand, earned more and kept their money.
In her letter to the chief minister, the survivor nun has complained about how she and her supporting sisters were not even being provided minimum requirements by the Sister Superior of the House in which they were staying. “We have nowhere to go and no income too,” she wrote. And therein lies the real problem.
At the moment, the walls of the convent provide them the only physical protection. If they are forced to leave or if their small group is splintered, the little that they have achieved in this case will be gone.
Left without money and deprived of each other’s support, they may have to give up the fight, which is perhaps what their superiors are hoping they will do.
Heads of religious institutions forcing themselves on their disciples or subordinates is not new. It has happened time and again in ashrams where powerful self-styled gurus and sadhus have assaulted their disciples and even landed in jail. It has happened in mosques and in gurudwaras. Such acts of sexual assault are all about power and have little to do with sexual desire. And the assaulters know that in most cases the survivors will not complain, because they have been conditioned to obey the “respected” religious heads. Besides, religious heads also have large followings of blind believers who are known to violently attack the accusers. Therefore, it takes courage for a woman who is the survivor of repeated sexual assaults by a religious head to come out in public with her accusation.
In this case, the church authorities obviously do not quite know how to deal with the unexpected rebellion from within the ranks. For the first ever time, a bishop has been publicly accused of raping a senior nun from his own diocese, and the nun has made her allegation public. Not just that, other nuns have come to her support and staged public protests where they garnered a lot of support.
Now, it is too late to pretend it never happened.
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